- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 5, 2018

As a black kid growing up in Canada playing hockey, Devante Smith-Pelly said he never heard any racist comments.

But when he turned pro, Smith-Pelly dealt with an incident at his very first rookie tournament in 2010. The Capitals forward, just 18 at the time, was on the ice as a second-round prospect for the Anaheim Ducks when he was stunned to hear someone in the crowd yelling a racially-tinged chant.

He almost snapped.

“I don’t know how no one found out, because I almost jumped into the crowd,” Smith-Pelly said.

The experience wouldn’t be his last with racial taunts. In February, fans in Chicago chanted “basketball” next to the winger in the penalty box — implying Smith-Pelly should be playing a sport where the participants are more likely to match his skin color. He reacted and was visibly upset, grabbing his stick to confront them at the glass before security intervened to eject the fans.

After a Chicago Tribune reader suggested Blackhawks fans donate money to Smith-Pelly’s favorite charity as a way to apologize — and raised more than $23,000 in the effort — Smith-Pelly realized he had to find a way to use the incident for good.

He named the District’s Fort Dupont Ice Arena, which hosts skating programs, including hockey, for inner-city children, as the recipient of the Chicago apology fund.

Race isn’t an issue most white NHL players have to confront in the overwhelmingly white sport.

But Smith-Pelly, if his team wins Thursday, would become just the eighth black player to hoist the coveted trophy.

“This is the goal,” Smith-Pelly said of playing for the Cup. “What happened (in Chicago) was a [expletive] thing, but that hasn’t been in my mind. I haven’t been saying, ‘Oh, let me prove those guys wrong’ or anything. … I’m trying to win.”

In the playoffs, Smith-Pelly has been a revelation. Signed last summer to a minimum two-way contract, the fourth-line winger has six goals this postseason — including scoring in back-to-back games in the Stanley Cup Final — after scoring just seven times in the regular season.

To get to this point, Smith-Pelly had to prove he belonged in the NHL — which wasn’t a guarantee entering the year.

A wild journey

The Capitals are Smith-Pelly’s fourth team in four seasons. Last offseason, the New Jersey Devils bought out Smith-Pelly’s contract worth $1.3 million.

His future was uncertain. The Capitals — needing cheap forward depth — took a flyer on Smith-Pelly, agreeing on a one-year, $650,000 deal — worth only $300,000 if he was sent to the minors. General manager Brian MacLellan viewed him as a project.

Smith-Pelly understood the hesitation, saying his problem was always consistency.

He said he needed to learn how to prepare on a daily basis, adding that his previous teams weren’t the best fit.

“In the past, I’ve moved around a lot in the lineup,” he said. “When I’ve gotten points, sometimes I hear the coach say ‘You’re not playing physical enough,’ and when I’m physical, it was ‘Oh you’re not producing enough.’”

That changed with the Capitals. Coach Barry Trotz gave Smith-Pelly a clear role: kill penalties, play hard and make it tough for the other team. Smith-Pelly has occasionally moved around in the lineup, though no one expected him to produce like Alex Ovechkin. The stability, he said, helps.

“He’s learned that he’s got my trust as a coach-player relationship,” Trotz said. “And he’s done a really good job.”

Giving back

Smith-Pelly didn’t want to take credit for raising money for Fort Dupont.

“I just had to choose where to put it,” he said.

But Smith-Pelly chose a cause he could relate with. Fort Dupont helps inner-city kids play hockey. Growing up in Scarborough, Ontario, Smith-Pelly said he needed help with registration fees and equipment.

“There’s a lot of kids who look like me and came from the same situation as me who don’t have the resources and means to play hockey,” Smith-Pelly said. “That money will help them if they want to pursue that, pursue their dreams. I know that money will go a long way.”

Fort Dupont founder Neal Henderson called Smith-Pelly a “perfect gentleman.” He said the way Smith-Pelly reacted to the incident also set a good example.

“I tell the kids that if you keep putting the puck in the net, they’ll keep quiet,” Henderson said. “You don’t get angry. You get smart. When you get angry, you’re not thinking.”

Chicago businessman John Simpson, the reader who suggested to the Tribune that fans donate to Smith-Pelly’s charity of choice, said he was left embarrassed for the city after he heard about the fans’ taunts.

“I wanted kids to look at Devante Smith-Pelly and say, ‘That could be me, and if I’m going to become that guy, I’m going to be respected and admired for my talents, not denigrated for the color of my skin,’” Simpson said.

‘D-S-P, D-S-P’

In Monday’s Game 4, Smith-Pelly was admired for his talents.

Fans at Capital One Arena chanted his name after Smith-Pelly put the Capitals up 3-0 in the first period in the team’s 6-2 win.

“It’s been a roller-coaster year,” Smith-Pelly said.

Smith-Pelly said he knows his experience in Chicago won’t be the last time someone tries to get under his skin. When it happens, he says, he’ll continue to move on.

“It’s just ignorant people being dummies,” Smith-Pelly said. “I know those people would never, ever walk up to me in the street and say that.”


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